SMART Homes Promise Senior Security

In response to growing concerns over our "aging population," a host of new technologies coming onto the market promise more peace of mind for seniors and their families. Called SMART homes, experimental houses using new technologies provide a marked improvement over medical alarms and other contemporary technologies that help the elderly remain independent.

At the recent Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council's (EPSRC) Pioneers 2009 Science Event in London, a SMART home system was unveiled by researchers at the Bath Institute of Medical Engineering.

Roger Orpwood, director of the Institute, says the system "[enables] a person with dementia to have a bit more control over their lives and to their own homes where their memories are and where they feel comfortable."

The Institute's SMART home system includes a variety of fascinating features including:

  • sensors that can turn off running taps and appliances such as irons and stoves
  • use of a familiar voice - someone they trust
  • text messaging family members if and when a resident wanders away in the night or if he or she otherwise shows signs of restlessness or anxiety

The system currently has a price tag of $18000 US but could come down in price with sufficient market demand that would help create an economy of scale. “The next step is to make sure the systems can be managed by non-technical local authority carers and healthcare staff. If manufacturers can be brought on board, we could see systems in people’s houses within five years or so.”

The Institute is also working on a system called Window on the World, using cameras and a radio link to provide seniors with a live view of their children's homes.

SMART homes in Canada

Meanwhile, two Canadian projects are also implementing SMART technology that will facilitate more independence for seniors and more peace of mind for their families.

At University of Alberta's Telus Centre, occupational therapy and industrial design students have collaborated on design projects, targeted specifically at seniors, for the past ten years. The Smart Condo project is focused on the needs of the disabled but it is also well-suited to help seniors and their families.

Robert Lederer, industrial design professor at U of A says, "We want the nursing home to be a last resort, not the first. We want to keep people living independently and living at home."

Phase 1 of the project focuses on space design, with medicine cabinets in the closet for easy access to medication, bathrooms with grab bars, shower benches and hallways and other spaces designed to accommodate walkers and wheelchairs.

Phase 2 focuses on the use of a variety of sensors (as also seen in the EPSRC project) including motion, vibration, and heat sensors that can all aid professionals in monitoring activities. Lili Liu, an occupational therapy professor on the project says researchers have learned that "people don't like to be monitored by video cameras, but don't mind sensors."

If needed, sensors can be hooked up to the Internet, so that when something bad happens such as a fall in the shower, family members or professionals would be alerted immediately. In addition, drug intake can be monitored. Phase 2 also includes integration with Second Life, the popular online role playing game; for the project, a virtual representation of what is going on inside the condo could be viewed by professionals or family members.

The fully functional Smart Condo is scheduled to be opened to the public in 2011, under the guidance of the U of A Health Sciences Council.

And meanwhile, at Simon Fraser University's Gerontology Research Centre, researchers are working on creating an "ambient assisted living environment" that also monitors medication and can even remind residents to exercise. Some appliances such as music players or televisions are equipped with a voice reminder of what they are used for, for those with dementia.

Andrew Sixsmith, director of the Centre says that distance from aging parents is a source of guilt and worry for many people. "Systems which can help people stay connected -- even if it's just to keep an eye on someone from a long distance -- that's a big thing, just to know that your elderly parent is OK."

Read more
The Edmonton Journal

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